However do we tell time anymore now that our starch no longer needs to be placed at ten o'clock, the vegetable at two, and the meat between four and eight? As cooking sensibilities heighten and general food knowledge increases, plating and presentation have become more complex. To be sure, I might expect such traditional food presentation while dining at a steakhouse, or attending a banquet dinner with a thousand odd other people, but for the most part contemporary restaurants have moved beyond this clockwork culinary approach. It has become less important to have representative food groups and more important for each item on the plate to have specific purpose and harmony. We don't just want any old band to show up at the party, we want a quartet with an extensive repertoire. Gone, too, are the gravity-defying creations that became popular when stacking food replaced the more "flat" fare. In my humble opinion, negotiating how you're going to go about eating your meal without putting it in your lap should not be a part of the dining experience. Really, the Tower of Pisa never needed competition.
How, then, does a chef combine color, shape, size, texture, flavor as well as appearance to create a culinary work of art? After talking to Executive Chefs Jennifer James of graze and Bruno Gras of the Corn Maiden about their particular food feng shui, the answer is balance. The two chefs were meant to juxtapose each other-Gras being the more classically trained and working in a more corporate, upscale hotel restaurant environment and James upholding a more casual, contemporary approach-but I found their philosophies strikingly similar. Both were adamant about function, function, function.
"Simple is better," Chef James says, in a mantra that must be the equivalent of sheep counting for her. "You should never have to ask, "what's that for?' or "why is that on my plate?'" Chef Gras and I spoke of some typical hotel industry trends such as the masses of snarled, fried noodles atop a ribeye, or the "parsley really does go with everything!" mentality, which would be perfect if there were ever an "Extreme Garnish" reality show, but would never, ever, appear in his restaurant. "It has to be neat, it has to be clean," Gras reiterated. "Everything on the plate should be edible and complement each other."
What does it mean then to have food look as good as it tastes? What sort of plating techniques must one employ? "The dish," Chef James imparts in a most memorable quote, "should be plated as though the food were dropped from heaven." Whether or not you believe God has a battalion of angels on hand for every meal, the analogy is a delightful combination of divinity and humanity-the perfect imperfection. "Get it on the plate and put it out; don't spend twenty minutes hovering and fussing," she says, waving her hands around as if to ward off all the fuss. For example, three seared scallops, browned and caramelized, medium rare served on a baby spinach and strawberry salad topped with pistachio butter. "Food is beautiful on its own-super fresh, high quality ingredients, perfectly prepared-that's beautiful food."
As for Chef Gras, the ingredient fusion requires more attention and thought to presentation. Pistachio crusted lamb rack brushed with Dijon mustard with a flourish of mint demi-glaze share space with sundried tomato and kalamata olive orzo and a baby vegetable patch of asparagus, carrots and beets. Chefs do find themselves in the conundrum of how to gauge the importance of presentation. It would seem natural and obvious that of course, taste be the most important, however, as Chef Gras points out, "Plating is the most important to me. I have no choice in that-guests see the food first."
For Chef Gras, whose hometown is Chamonix Mont Blanc in the French Alps, great food is clearly a family affair. "My grandfather was a chef and my dad. My uncle, my dad's twin brother, has been a chef in the United States for thirty years. They were both trained by Paul Bocuse. I started cooking at home with my dad when I was about ten." He's been in the United States for seven years and just moved to New Mexico last February. Since his arrival, Chef Gras has been trying to blend his cooking style with that of the culture around him. I like his quote about the theme of the dishes prepared at the Corn Maiden, "They are not copies of local favorites, they are inspired by them." He is classically French trained but he's working on not being "too classic" which, when pressed for more detail, explained it meant "too French." (Of course, I thought, why did I bother asking?) Eager to get off this identity merry-go-round, he clarified in food terms. For example, a current item he's working on for the spring menu is grilled buffalo tenderloin (there's not a lot of buffalo in France or classic cooking) atop a celery purée and fried potatoes mixed with pâte choux (essentially, a puff pastry batter) and finished with foie gras and shaved truffles. And how will this look on the plate? "The food dictates me-I don't have an idea of what it will look like when I start to work with it, but I'll move things around a few times and know when it is right."
Chef James, echoing the organic notion of this process, states, "If you have the knowledge and balance of flavors down-spicy, sweet, tangy, bitter, etc.-you don't have to worry that much about presentation." She also hearkens to her Midwestern heritage in graze's food presentation. I recalled a cheese plate featuring Tucumcari feta within extra virgin olive oil with garlic, orange zest and herbs. The mixture marinated, and was served, in a small Ball canning jar with housemade crackers. "I grew up surrounded by Ball canning jars-it's important for chefs to show evidence of where they're from." One thing I would be remiss in not sharing as a steadfast element of Chef James' presentation is citrus. On the sashimi offering du jour-kajiki (blue marlin) served with a raw carrot/basil/cilantro salad, you will find a grilled lime daintily placed on one of those teeny-tiny forks, just waiting for your squeeze. James notes, "Citrus is best when added at the very end-it makes the dish come alive."
Food preparation and presentation is more than squeeze bottles and julienned carrots, it is a symbiosis between taste and aesthetic-a clear form of self expression that will vary in as many styles as there are chefs. It requires an obvious depth and breadth of food knowledge. In the end, presentation is not about architecture or what the clock says, but what makes good gustatory sense.
The Corn Maiden at the Hyatt Regency Tamaya is home for Chef Bruno Gras, 1300 Tuyuna Trail in the Santa Ana Pueblo. 505.867.1234.
Chef Jennifer James is at graze, 3128 Centaral Avenue SE in Albuquerque. 505.268.4729.